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Update February 2019


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Science & Nature
 

Astronomers unlikely victims of Mexico's violence, crime

 

The Large Millimeter Telescope stands on the summit of the Sierra Negra peak near the town of Atzitzintla, Mexico. Astronomers have become the latest victims of Mexico's violence with activities at the observatory being reduced because its staff has suffered so many crimes while traveling to the remote mountain site, researcher said Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, File)

Mark Stevenson

Mexico City (AP) - Astronomers have become the latest victims of Mexico's violence with activities at two observatories being reduced because their staff suffered crimes while travelling to the remote mountain sites, researchers said Thursday, Feb. 7.

The problems occurred near the Alfonso Serrano Large Millimeter Telescope, or LMT, in the central Mexico state of Puebla. It is the world's largest single-dish steerable millimeter-wavelength telescope and is jointly run by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Mexico's national institute of astrophysics.

LMT "has reduced its scientific activities to a minimum level due to the security problems in the region surrounding the telescope," said university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

"The University of Massachusetts Amherst has suspended travel of UMass personnel to the LMT site, and we have retained security consultants to advise us on security risks in the area and strategies to deal with these risks," he said.

Mexico's astrophysics institute said in a statement that "the unsafe conditions that prevail in the region are well known and public."

The other affected site is the HAWC gamma ray and cosmic ray observation facility. The HWAC is an international collaboration between more than 30 institutions in Mexico, the United States, and Europe.

Both are located on the Sierra Negra volcano near the Pico de Orizaba, Mexico's highest peak, with its clear air and lack of nearby light pollution.

The area, around Puebla state's border with neighboring Veracruz, has long been the scene of criminal activity by the now-fragmented Zetas drug cartel. But in recent years it has also been hit by violence associated with gangs that drill taps into government fuel pipelines to steal gasoline and diesel.

None of the researchers specified exactly what kind of crimes they had suffered, but local media have reported that people travelling to the Sierra Negra have been carjacked and robbed on roads leading to the peak.

Astronomy Professor F. Peter Schloerb, the director of the LMT office for UMass Amherst, declined to give specifics but said "we had just one incident that precipitated our recent decision."

"No one was harmed, and I don't think that we at LMT are particularly singled out by the criminals," Schloerb wrote. "Nevertheless, we do feel that it is important to review the situation carefully before returning to normal operations."

A Puebla state official who was not authorized to be quoted by name said the only serious incident he was aware of occurred in December, when a person travelling to work at the telescope suffered a carjacking on his way to the site.

The state police have since said they will provide escorts for astronomers and telescope personnel.

Mexico has suffered a rising tide of homicides, which peaked at 33,341 in 2018, a 15.5 increase over 2017.

The violence has affected many areas of public life; 26 priests were killed in Mexico between 2012 and 2018, and even environmental inspectors have been killed after mistakenly stumbling on drug labs. But to date scientists had not been affected.


January was officially Australia’s hottest month on record

Australia sweltered through its hottest month on record in January and the summer of extremes continues with wildfires razing the drought-parched south while expanses of the tropical north are flooded. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill, File)

Canberra, Australia (AP) - Australia sweltered through its hottest month on record in January and the summer of extremes continued with wildfires razing the drought-parched south and flooding in expanses of the tropical north.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology confirmed the January record last week as parts of the northern hemisphere had record cold.

Australia’s scorching start to 2019 - in which the mean temperature across the country for the first time exceeded 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) - followed Australia’s third-hottest year on record. Only 2005 and 2013 were warmer than 2018, which ended with the hottest December on record.

Heat-stressed bats dropped dead from trees by the thousands in Victoria State and bitumen roads melted in New South Wales during heatwaves last month.

New South Wales officials say drought-breaking rains are needed to improve the water quality in a stretch of a major river system where hundreds of thousands of fish died in two mass deaths during January linked to excessive heat. A South Australia state government report found that too much water had been drained from the river system for farming under a management plan that did not take into account the impact of climate change on the river’s health.

The South Australian capital Adelaide on Jan. 24 recorded the hottest day ever for a major Australian city - a searing 46.6 C (115.9 F).

On the same day, the South Australian town of Port Augusta, population 15,000, recorded 49.5 C (121.1 F) - the highest maximum anywhere in Australia last month.

Bureau senior climatologist Andrew Watkins described January’s heat as unprecedented.

“We saw heatwave conditions affect large parts of the country through most of the month, with records broken for both duration and also individual daily extremes,” Watkins said in a statement.

The main contributor to the heat was a persistent high-pressure system over the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand that blocked cold fronts from reaching southern Australia.

Rainfall was below-average for most of the country, but the monsoonal trough has brought flooding rains to northern Queensland State in the past week, leading to a disaster declaration around the city of Townsville.

Queensland’s flooded Daintree River reached a 118-year high in January.

Emergency services also reported rescuing 28 people from floodwaters in the area.

“The vast bulk of the population will not have experienced this type of event in their lifetime,” State Disaster Coordinator Bob Gee told reporters, referring to the extraordinary flooding.

Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill described the torrential rain as a “one-in-100-year event” that had forced authorities to release water from the city dam. The water release would worsen flooding in low-lying suburbs, but would prevent the Ross River from breaking its banks.

In the southern island state of Tasmania, authorities are hoping rain will douse more than 40 fires that have razed more than 187,000 hectares (720 square miles) of forest and farmland. Dozens of houses have been destroyed by fires and flooding in recent weeks.

The Climate Council, an Australian independent organization formed to provide authoritative climate change information to the public, said the January heat record showed the government needed to curb Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions which have increased during each of the past four years.

“Climate change is cranking up the intensity of extreme heat, and January’s record-breaking month is part of a sharp, long-term upswing in temperatures driven primarily from the burning of fossil fuels,” the council’s acting chief executive Martin Rice said in a statement.


Toshiba unveils robot to probe melted Fukushima nuclear fuel

Toshiba Corp.’s energy systems unit group manager Jun Suzuki shows a remote-controlled melted fuel probe device at its facility in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Mari Yamaguchi)

Mari Yamaguchi

Yokohama, Japan (AP) – Toshiba Corp. unveiled a remote-controlled robot with tongs on Monday that it hopes will be able to probe the inside of one of the three damaged reactors at Japan’s tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant and grip chunks of highly radioactive melted fuel.

The device is designed to slide down an extendable 11-meter (36-foot) long pipe and touch melted fuel inside the Unit 2 reactor’s primary containment vessel. The reactor was built by Toshiba and GE. 

An earlier probe carrying a camera captured images of pieces of melted fuel in the reactor last year, and robotic probes in the two other reactors have detected traces of damaged fuel, but the exact location, contents and other details remain largely unknown.

Toshiba’s energy systems unit said experiments with the new probe planned in February are key to determining the proper equipment and technologies needed to remove the fuel debris, the most challenging part of the decommissioning process expected to take decades.

The three reactors at the Fukushima plant suffered core meltdowns after a massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami damaged key cooling systems.

In last year’s probe, a camera developed by Toshiba Energy Systems & Solutions Corp. and the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning found large amounts of deposits in that area, including parts that resembled pebbles or gravel.

The 30-centimeter (12-inch) long robot unveiled Monday will carry a radiation dosimeter, thermometer, LED lights, a camera and a pair of tongs as it slowly slides down from a pipe. The probe, attached by a cable on its back, is to dangle from the pipe and descend to the bottom of the reactor vessel’s pedestal, a structure directly below the core from which the melted fuel fell.

Toshiba plans to use the new device to touch and grip the deposits with the tongs, which can hold a lump as wide as 8 centimeters (3 inches) weighing up to two kilograms (4.4 pounds), to investigate its hardness and other details, said Jun Suzuki, a Toshiba ESS group manager for the project.

“Until now we have only seen those deposits, and we need to know whether they will break off and can be picked up and taken out,” Suzuki said. “Touching the deposits is important so we can make plans to sample the deposits, which is a next key step.”

The probe will mainly examine the fuel debris’ physical condition rather than its radioactive components or other details which require actual sampling and safe storage.

“We are taking one step at a time,” said Tsutomu Takeuchi, a Toshiba ESS senior manager for the Fukushima decommissioning project. “First we’ll find out if those deposits can be picked up.” If the device is unable to lift anything, that’s also a key finding, he said. In that case, they will need a cutting device to tear off a sample piece.

TEPCO and government officials plan to determine methods for removing the melted fuel from each of the three damaged reactors later this year so they can begin the process in 2021.


Science Says: A big space crash likely made Uranus lopsided

This image made from video provided by Durham University astronomy researcher Jacob Kegerreis shows a computer simulation generated by the open-source code SWIFT that depicts an object crashing into the planet Uranus. Kegerreis says the detailed simulations show that the collision and reshaping of Uranus 3 billion to 4 billion years ago likely caused the massive planet to tilt about 90 degrees on its side. (Jacob A. Kegerreis/Durham University via AP)

Seth Borenstein

Washington (AP) - Uranus is a lopsided oddity, the only planet to spin on its side. Scientists now think they know how it got that way: It was pushed over by a rock at least twice as big as Earth.

Detailed computer simulations show that an enormous rock crashed into the seventh planet from the sun, said Durham University astronomy researcher Jacob Kegerreis, who presented his analysis at a large earth and space science conference last month.

Uranus is unique in the solar system. The massive planet tilts about 90 degrees on its side, as do its five largest moons. Its magnetic field is also lopsided and doesn’t go out the poles like ours does, said NASA chief scientist Jim Green. It also is the only planet that doesn’t have its interior heat escape from the core. It has rings like Saturn, albeit faint ones.

“It’s very strange,” said Carnegie Institution planetary scientist Scott Sheppard, who wasn’t part of the research.

The computer simulations show that the collision and reshaping of Uranus - maybe enveloping some or all of the rock that hit it - happened in a matter of hours, Kegerreis said. He produced an animation showing the violent crash and its aftermath.

It’s also possible that the big object that knocked over Uranus is still lurking in the solar system too far for us to see, said Green. It would explain some of the orbits of the planet and fit with a theory that a missing planet X is circling the sun well beyond Pluto, he said.

Green said it’s possible that a lot of smaller space rocks - the size of Pluto - pushed Uranus over, but Kegerreis’ research and Sheppard point to a single huge unknown suspect. Green said a single impact “is the right thinking.”

The collision happened 3 billion to 4 billion years ago, likely before the larger moons of Uranus formed. Instead there was a disk of stuff that would eventually come together to form moons. And when that happened, Uranus’ odd tilt acted like a gravity tidal force pushing those five large moons to the same tilt, Kegerreis said.

It also would have created an icy shell that kept Uranus’ inner heat locked in, Kegerreis said. (Uranus’ surface is minus 357 degrees, or minus 216 Celsius.)

Ice is key with Uranus and its neighbor Neptune. A little more than a decade ago, NASA reclassified those two planets as “ice giants,” no longer lumping them with the other large planets of the solar system, the gas giants Saturn and Jupiter.

Pluto, which is tiny, farther from the sun and not even officially a planet anymore, has been explored more than Uranus and Neptune. They only got brief flybys by Voyager 2, the space probe that entered interstellar space last month.

Uranus and Neptune “are definitely the least understood planets,” Sheppard said.

But that may change. A robotic probe to one or both of those planets was high up on the last wish-list from top planetary scientists and likely will be at or near the top of the next list.

Uranus was named for the Greek god of the sky. Its name often generates juvenile humor when it is wrongly pronounced like a body part. (It’s correctly pronounced YUR’-uh-nus.)

“No one laughs when I say Uranus,” NASA’s Green said. “They have to mispronounce it to get the chuckles.”


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Astronomers unlikely victims of Mexico's violence, crime


January was officially Australia’s hottest month on record


Toshiba unveils robot to probe melted Fukushima nuclear fuel


Science Says: A big space crash likely made Uranus lopsided